All shook up

MIRA KAMDAR

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MOST people I know can’t wait to put the year 2001 behind them. The new millennium began on a roll: During the year 2000, double-digit gains on Wall Street made instant millionaires out of anyone gutsy enough to work an online trading account from her home office computer. Indian techies from Silicon Valley to Bangalore launched internet start-ups as fast as you could pronounce the words ‘going public’. IT stocks shot up to such dizzying multiples that really any price seemed possible: over $200 a share for Satyam; $400 a share for Infosys. Many people felt that sooner rather than later this tsunami of money would lift every boat, even the poorest one. In the mean time, the 2001 New Year’s party was invited to begin.

But the party had no sooner begun than it came to a crashing close. Before the end of January, Gujarat was hit by a devastating earthquake. Tens of thousands of people woke up, went about their early morning business and were killed. Hundreds of thousands more were made homeless. Who can forget the heartrending image of a boy reaching past a collapsed concrete ceiling to touch his crushed mother’s pallu? Or, the story of the scores of school children in their fresh braids and uniforms buried alive beneath town walls as they marched in a Republic Day parade?

From Morvi to Bhuj, for mile after mile, every village lay in rubble: drifts of dust, piles of stones, shards of window frames, door panels ripped from their hinges. Orphaned children wandered about in shock. Make-shift tents, charpoys and campfires were set up in ruined courtyards. For days, international television broadcast nothing but scenes of devastation in and around Bhuj, the crumpled hulks of middle class apartment blocks in Ahmedabad. The dead, unreachable under the tons of debris, began to stink.

Thanks to the internet, news of the earthquake in Gujarat reached America about the same time it reached the rest of India. With international phone lines jammed and local phone service down in many areas, e-mail became the only way for many to check the welfare of families back home. Throughout the last nights and days of January, cyberspace echoed with desperate messages from America to India: ‘Can you check on Madhuben’s family in Ahmedabad? Been trying to phone but can’t get through.’ And the messages back to America from Gujarat: ‘I personally went to Madhu’s place. The buildings on each side are down. Completely ruined. But Madhu and Kartik’s building, thank God, is still standing. They are alright, though naturally, having lost so many neighbours... Anyone else you want me to look in on?’

While the Government of India, the Gujarat government and a slew of Indian charities, from the Lion’s Club of Rajkot to Abhiyan, rushed to speed aid and volunteers to Kutch, the response from America was also immediate, and generous. Mainstream humanitarian organizations such as CARE and the Red Cross responded quickly to the tragedy.

 

 

It is estimated that fully forty per cent of all Americans of Indian origin hail from Gujarat, and every Indian community association, from the Association of Physicians of Indian Origin (AAPI) and the Asian American Hotel Owners Association (AAHOA), community organizations such as the Gujarati Samaj, the Association of Indian Americans (AIA) and the Swami Narayan Sanstha (BAPS) jumped into action to raise money for the earthquake victims. Successful information technology entrepreneurs such as the members of Digital Partners or the INDUS Entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley mobilized to raise millions of dollars for the relief effort.

In fact, the most elite India-oriented organization in America, the Indian America Foundation was created in direct response to the Gujarat earthquake by the cream of New York society, including Rajat Gupta of McKinsey, Victor Menezes of Citibank and no less a celebrity than former U.S. President Clinton. They quickly got down to the business of raising money for earthquake victims in Gujarat by entertaining monied New Yorkers who paid $1,000-a-plate for the pleasure of dining while beautiful young women modelled diaphanous Indian saris before their brocade-enveloped tables – all for a good cause, of course.

Ah New York. So cozily ensconced in its stature as the seat of the new global imperium. So easy, really, to (from a very safe distance) do good while sacrificing nothing. While the events of 2001 did not destroy New York’s indomitable spirit, they did put a bit of a dent in the city’s smugness. I remember very clearly how one Fall evening in 1996, in a fine restaurant in Greenwich Village, I expressed to my dinner companions, all anointed members of the U.S. foreign policy and business elite, my alarm at the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.

I had, earlier that week, been to a meeting at the United Nations where a desperate group of Afghan women had pleaded for the international community to intervene and save them from a living domestic interment. ‘We created this mess, after all. Don’t we bear any responsibility here?’ I asked. ‘Isn’t there anything we can do?’ After taking a sip of his Bordeaux Grand Cru, a well-known author and then advisor to the White House, responded simply and with a sigh of what I took to be boredom: ‘Great powers leave messes in their wake.’

 

 

Well, if there is one thing New Yorkers learned in 2001, it is that in the new millennium great powers can no longer pretend to leave their messes safely behind in far-off corners of the earth. On 11 September, people in New York got up, went about their early morning business and then looked up to see one of America’s messes coming in to give us a neck-snapping slap across the face.

Out of the bluest sky any of us will ever remember, death came calling as first one and then a second plane careened into the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Black smoke billowed up into the azure air, and then, unbelievably, first one and then the other great tower collapsed, imploded really, straight down, down, down all those many floors into a smoking pit of infinite rubble. Nearly 4,000 people died. Thousands of others ran for their lives ahead of a huge monster of roaring smoke.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon – the Pentagon, for Chrissakes – was also attacked. America the invulnerable suffered the worst body blow in its history. What happened seemed preposterous, a Hollywood action picture broadcast by mistake over CNN. The most unreal thing about it was that it was all too real.

 

 

For days, international television broadcast nothing but the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C. In the tradition of the instant sports replay, over and over again, the planes full of terrified passengers slammed into the twin proud symbols of America’s global financial dominance. Over and over again, the towers collapsed. Over and over again, we heard of the brave New York City policemen and firefighters who rushed up the stairs of the burning towers to rescue people only to meet their own deaths. We cried, God how we cried: for the victims, for the horror, for our children, for our lost innocence, for a world that would never be the same again.

Every airplane over America was grounded. Normal life ceased. Everyone trapped at home or in a hotel room essentially did nothing for three days but watch television. Visiting parents from India wondered if they would ever be able to get home. High-tech workers worried their visas would be revoked. Over and over again, one hopeful person after another addressed the cameras with a homemade poster of a sister, a father, a mother, a wife, a son who was missing. Most New Yorkers, too, watched it all on television. But they also got the smell. First, the acrid, chemical smell of burning buildings and, soon enough, the smell of the dead.

In the reverse of the aftermath of the Gujarat earthquake, email messages again began whizzing through the Indian diaspora’s cyberspace. From every corner of the United States, from every corner of Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Hong Kong, Singapore and from every corner of India, people wanted to know: ‘Heard the horrible news. Are you okay? What about Indrani’s husband? Didn’t he work at the World Trade Center? And how about Salman? Isn’t he in finance? Is Shoba auntie okay? What about Manju and Harshit’s daughter Sona? Didn’t she just begin a few months ago with Morgan Stanley? Doesn’t Farid work in Manhattan? Is he alright?’

 

 

And the responses whizzed back. ‘Thank God, we are all okay. We don’t know yet about Sona. We pray she’s alright but it’s true that Morgan Stanley occupied a lot of floors, so we just don’t know. Shoba auntie lives in Queens and has never set foot outside her neighbourhood much less in the World Trade Center, so don’t worry about her. As for Salman, yes, he’s in finance but his office is in mid-town, miles from the World Trade Center and he’s fine. Indrani’s line is constantly busy. Can someone send an email to her cousin and see if he can’t go over to the apartment and check on things? Farid works in Manhattan but we’ve no news and he can’t get home to New Jersey just yet, so we’ll have to wait and see.’

Tens of thousands more people perished in Gujarat on 26 January than in New York on 11 September. In Gujarat, hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes, their loved ones, their livelihoods. Earthquake victims in Gujarat received as little as twenty kilos of potatoes and Rs 400 for a ruined house. Victims of the 11 September attack are likely to receive a minimum of $100,000 each. In human terms, the earthquake in Gujarat was a far greater tragedy than the attack on the World Trade Center in New York. In global terms, however, what the attack on New York may portend for the fate of the world puts it on an entirely different level of magnitude.

 

 

Earthquakes, cyclones, catastrophic floods, drought-provoked famines: God knows India has experienced her share of disaster on a grand scale and will no doubt continue to do so, as the mid-year cyclone in Orissa amply demonstrated. But, though the toll of these events is always tragically exaggerated by human density, by poverty, by a lack of emergency response infrastructure, by corruption, the casualties are still understood to be fundamentally the result of a calamity of nature, unpredictable, unavoidable, lacking in murderous intent if not in deadly effect.

Nothing was clearer about the attack on the World Trade Center than the murderous intent of its perpetrators. Their goal, resoundingly achieved, was to destroy one of the most potent symbols of America’s global preeminence, spectacularly and for the whole world to see. The attack on the Pentagon and the planned but thwarted attack on the White House or the Capitol sent an additional message about the vulnerability of the world’s only superpower.

The collateral damage to the U.S. economy, already weakened and teetering on the edge of a recession, was also, certainly, planned. More deviously, the blow to America’s confidence, her swaggering self-assurance, her appetite for fun and entertainment, was unmistakably intended to undermine the will of the American people and to strike at the foundation of the United States’ dominance over the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of the people of the world.

 

 

It’s not surprising that Indians around the globe should feel particularly panicked by an attack on New York. In one of the scenes of the immediate aftermath broadcast over and over again, soot-covered people with handkerchiefs over their faces limp along a smoke-choked street past a tattered banner waving dimly in the background. It is impossible to make out the image or words on the banner with precision, but anyone who knows New York recognizes it immediately as one of the thousands around the city that proclaim proudly: ‘New York: The World’s Capital’.

If New York is the world’s capital, the World Trade Center was the capital of global New York. The victims who perished there hailed from more than 40 different countries, including India. Scores of individuals from India or of Indian origin barely escaped with their lives, knew someone who worked at the World Trade Center, raced to the scene of the attack to help as a doctor, a fireman or a policeman.

Then there were the couple of hundred people who were not so lucky, people such as newly-wed Neil Shastri. According to an obituary published in the New York Times, Neil and his bride Kruti had not even yet gotten back their wedding photos when Tuesday’s attack occurred. Neil was at work for Cantor Fitzgerald on the 103rd floor of 1 World Trade Center. The families and friends of the individuals who perished in the attack will never fully recover from their grief and trauma. But the entire Indian diaspora community, whether touched directly or indirectly, has been dealt a blow as well.

I know some Londoners may take exception to this, but now that even Salman Rushdie has left London for New York to be with his beloved Padmini and added his star status to that of Ismail Merchant, Mira Nair, Sonny Mehta, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri and Deepak Chopra, is there really any question anymore about New York’s ascendance as global capital of the Indian diaspora?

 

 

Just in terms of sheer population, New York dwarfs the rest of the country in desi density. Or, at least the tri-state area, especially New Jersey. But New York, and specifically Manhattan, is the magnetic pole around which the global Indian population remains as helplessly attracted as so many lovelorn moths hovering around the beacon of Lady Liberty’s flame at night out in the harbour. And so, naturally, when a horrifying event of this proportion strikes New York, it is bound to strike at the heart of the Indian diaspora community as well.

The Indian community was not the only community in New York to be hard-hit by this tragedy, but its experience of the aftermath of the 11 September attack was uniquely traumatic. Within 24 hours of the twin towers’ implosion, there were reports of assaults on Sikhs by angry mobs of Americans. Five days after the attack, a white man drove into a gas station in Mesa, Arizona and killed its Sikh owner, Balbir Singh Sodhi. Mr. Sodhi, a father of three sons who had lived in the United States for more than 10 years, had received verbal threats the day before.

Reports of threats, beatings and another murder in Texas soon followed. And it’s not just men with beards and turbans – no matter what their religion or national origin – who are being attacked. The big sign identifying the 108-acre Jain temple complex in Blairstown, New Jersey was knocked down by someone in a truck, and a Hindu temple in Ontario, Canada was burned to the ground, it is believed, by arson. South Asians of all communities reported being at the receiving end of spoken threats and insults, and, if that wasn’t bad enough, of being subject to profiling, harassment and even arrest by police authorities who seem to be going after anyone remotely ‘Arab looking’.

In the highly charged atmosphere following the attack, ignorance and prejudice contributed to an ugly ‘act now, ask questions later’ mindset by some Americans against fellow citizens whose only crime was looking ‘foreign’. The comfort and security many Indian Americans – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – felt in this country before 11 September was shattered. At the same time, the attack on America may end up bringing India and the United States closer than they have ever before been in the uneven history of their relationship.

 

 

At the end of the Cold War, when America’s confrontation with the Soviet Union in Afghanistan was over, India and the rest of South Asia ceased to loom large on the radar screens – let alone the television screens – of the United States. Aside from the chilling prospect of a nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan over Kashmir, no one in America much paid attention. All that changed with India’s nuclear tests in 1998. The same year, the United States began to worry about the growing terrorist threat posed by Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network working out of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

The Clinton administration’s Strobe Talbot and India’s Jaswant Singh began a series of meetings that culminated with then President Bill Clinton’s wildly successful trip to India in the spring of 2000. Inspired by the opportunities of India’s burgeoning IT sector, our ambassador gushed (before the collapse of the tech bubble) that the Indo-U.S. relationship was ‘a growth-stock in international relations.’ The United States finally did what India had been demanding for decades: delink its policy toward India from its policy toward Pakistan. When the Bush administration came into power in January 2001, it did indeed seem as if the world’s oldest and the world’s largest democracies were embarking on a more mature, more equal relationship.

 

 

Then came the attack on 11 September. Though India immediately pledged its full support for the United States’ announced war on terrorism, America made the realpolitik decision that Pakistan, whether it wanted to or not, was going to be our new best friend in our quest to unseat the Taliban and take out bin Laden. India’s reaction to the United States’ alliance with Pakistan has been, understandably, not a very happy one.

From India’s point of view, Pakistan is one of the world’s worst aiders and abettors of terrorism. Without fresh infusions of madrassa-indoctrinated young jihadis pouring out of Pakistan and into the Taliban’s frontline trenches, without the support of the ISI and of elements in the highest reaches of Pakistan’s government and military, the Taliban would not have lasted one week in Afghanistan. At least since 1998, the United States had asked Pakistan to help locate and hand over bin Laden. Pakistan had, until 12 September, demurred.

Meanwhile, Pakistan was the safe haven for terrorists attacking India, whether in the vale of Kashmir or the streets of Bombay in 1993. Every Indian and Indian-American who watched the terrible images of the September attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon remembered other images of terror, specifically the 1993 terrorist attacks in Bombay against a variety of targets, including the Air India building and the Bombay Stock Exchange. There was blood everywhere, charred bodies, bodies blown to bits, and this revolting carnage was followed by days of senseless reprisals against innocent Muslim citizens.

 

 

Thousands of people died. The Indian government has maintained for years that the accused authors of the attack, Dawood Ibrahim and Tiger Memon, were aided and abetted by Pakistan and are still residing tranquilly in that country. The Government of India has also repeatedly asked the United States for help in putting a stop to terrorist attacks on India and in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir by groups operating from Pakistan. On 1 October 2001, a terrorist suicide bomber belonging to a Pakistan-based group attacked the state legislature building in Kashmir and killed 38 people. The United States asked that India remain calm. India wondered about an American ‘double standard’ when it comes to fighting terrorism.

Many important events happened in 2001, yet they all eclipsed what occurred on 26 January and 11 September. As the year concludes, we contemplate on television one of the consequences of the attack on America: the apotheosis of the suffering of Afghan people as they head, homeless and hungry, into winter. Afghanistan, the most mined country on earth. Afghanistan, where as many as 8 million people may starve before the spring thaw in 2002. Afghanistan, that old chessboard upon which the Great Powers once again play the Great Game.

A grieving and outraged United States cannot be stopped from going after the author of the 11 September attacks. The Taliban is finished and bin Laden will be brought to justice, punishment, death or all of the above. But what happens after that? What will 2002 bring? Will the international community be able to help the different factions in Afghanistan devise a government that can function and survive? Will sufficient aid reach the long-suffering Afghan people in time to stave off a colossal humanitarian catastrophe?

 

 

Perhaps the world will go out with a bang and not a whimper after all. Or, perhaps terrorism will be defeated and the poverty, the ignorance, the global inequities, and the reaction against modernity that spawn it will cede to an equitably shared posterity and a tolerance of difference. (One can always hope.) The world will be made safe for democracy, not to mention the consumption of petroleum and the free flow of transnational capital.

Whatever the outcome, thousands of mostly women and children will die, in Afghanistan or Iraq as a consequence of the terrorists’ war with America, in Africa from the raging AIDS epidemic, or anywhere else in the developing world where poverty, hunger, and a lack of basic medical care reign. It is quite possible that hundreds if not thousands more Americans will die in another terrorist attack. What will it be next time? A bio-terror epidemic? A suitcase nuclear bomb? Indians, who like many people in the world have lived with terrorism for some time now, know that they too are likely to suffer additional casualties.

Jaswant Singh’s pronouncement that India lives ‘in a dangerorus neighbourhood’ can now be applied to the entire globe. What role will India play in this new Great Game where the stakes are higher than ever? With a global recession and dim prospects for further economic reforms, India’s economy is likely to slow, putting further into the future the prospect of economically enfranchising its approximately 400 million desperately poor people any time soon. What new domestic political pressures will this create in 2002?

I believe India will continue to demand that the United States accept it on a more equal footing, and the United States will do this when it serves its interests to do so. Many forms of joint cooperation will certainly be pursued. But America’s interests and India’s interests are hardly identical, despite the shared democratic and secular paradigm. In fact, the interesting question going into 2002 will be to what extent India and America’s deeply shared values of secular democracy may conflict with specific regional and global interests. One thing I do believe: the bilateral relationship will be stronger in 2002 and perhaps beyond than ever before. Nevertheless, each country will separately cultivate relationships with the other great powers: Russia and China, as well as with Iran and Israel.

 

 

And finally, there is the question of Pakistan, 2001’s surprise strategic U.S. partner. Can Pakistan be rescued from its rapacious elite, its failed civic institutions, the rise of Islamic extremism, a jittery and ambitious military and the opium trade? In the best of all possible worlds, 2001 will have given Pakistan a chance to escape these scourges and to offer its own people, the people of India, including those in Kashmir, and the world a stable, resecularized, redemocratized country with which its neighbours may get along and within whose borders terrorists find no refuge.

If that happens, maybe 2001 won’t look so bad after all.

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